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Sports Authority/ The Back Page 

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By Michael Miner

Sports Authority

No galleon sailing the Spanish Main ever boasted so imposing a prow. Reader editors stared in astonishment at the mug shot that accompanies Skip Bayless's new Tribune sports column and imagined him as leading man of a soap opera. A Tribune writer pondered the taut visage and murmured that here was the perfect face to host a TV program devoted to urgent examination of the paranormal. I found myself thinking along the lines of a Jerzy Kosinski death mask.

"So the war continues," said Sun-Times sports editor Bill Adee, eyeing the new enemy dreadnought.

Does your brother really look like that? I asked the famous chef Rick Bayless.

"He's pretty notorious for that kind of thing," said Rick.

Skip Bayless, whose ice-cold gaze succeeds the folksier countenance of Bob Verdi, has written magazine articles, syndicated columns, and a Dallas Cowboys trilogy--God's Coach, The Boys, and Hell-Bent. The Boys will be turned into an HBO movie about feuding owner Jerry Jones, ex-coach Jimmy Johnson, and the rise and fall of the franchise. "You had Jerry Jones, with the potential to win four or five Super Bowls, destroying it because he needs credit for what he's wrought," Bayless told me. "You have the potential for the same thing here with Krause and Reinsdorf."

Bayless said he came to Chicago because "there's a spirit here that doesn't exist in other places" and he wanted "to share in the passion."

We're losers, I warned him.

"It's hard for me to have a lot of sympathy for all the championships you haven't won," he said, "because in 1985 you had the single most compelling Super Bowl champion in history. And furthermore, God gave you Michael Jordan and the United Center. That ain't all bad."

God also gave Chicago Bayless's brother Rick, who opened Frontera Grill and Topolobampo with his wife and is one of the most honored chefs in America. "Our parents owned a little sort of wrong-side-of-the-tracks barbecue in Oklahoma City," Skip Bayless reminisced. "I was forced to work there and cleaned off tables. My brother benefited greatly from the ability to go into a real kitchen, and he cooked early on. My experience with cooking is that I nearly chopped off my left forefinger doing a green pepper. It took that to free me from the kitchen forever."

He went on, "You just can't imagine how proud I am of my little brother. I know what he had to overcome to escape from Oklahoma City. Sometimes I wonder how either one of us got out of there. I am much more in awe of what he has done than anything I have done. He's a big deal."

Rick's a very big deal--proclaimed by the James Beard Foundation the midwest's best chef in 1991, and chef of the year in 1996. He's also the author of celebrated cookbooks such as Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. Meanwhile, the sportswriters of Texas three times named Skip Bayless sportswriter of the year. "My mom always laughs because I eat quote-unquote well and don't care much about taste," Skip told me. "I'm into all that crazy low-fat stuff. So she said, 'I have one son who wants to eat healthy and doesn't care what it tastes like and another son who's a food artist.'"

"We work in such completely different worlds," said Rick Bayless, "that we really don't know each other very well as adults. In fact, we know each other better from our writing than other things. He told me that the first thing he was going to do when he can see his way clear is get a T-shirt made that says 'No, I can't get you reservations.'"

The Back Page

Although journalists as a rule trust no one's motives, they do make an exception for their own. At a glance, the annual competition of the Associated Press Sports Editors is too riddled with conflicts of interest to be taken seriously. But the editors insist they bend over backward to behave honorably, and I have no particular reason not to believe them.

Consider appearances, however. The Sun-Times received a devastating rebuke at last month's APSE meeting in Tampa. Its daily sports section had been chosen among the APSE's top ten in 1993, '94, '95, and '97. It received an honorable mention--which put it among the top 20--in '96. This year it got nothing. The six-editor jury that rejected it was chaired by Rick Jaffe, the Sun-Times's former sports editor, who left the paper in 1995, when new owners took over, and is now at the Los Angeles Times. Another of the jurors was John Cherwa, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, which finished in the top ten.

"This should be sent out to an independent group of journalism professors. There's no reason they should be involved in the awards," argues Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti. "Both these guys, particularly Jaffe, tend to strong-arm guys in the business. I think this is an example of how he can manipulate."

The six judges read close to 60 different entries. Each entry consisted of two editions published on dates picked at random by the APSE and two editions chosen by the paper itself, and each edition had to have been published on a different day of the week. After each judge graded each entry, the judges discussed the 25 papers with the highest averages, plus the one other paper that each judge was allowed to put back on the table. This group was winnowed down to a top ten and a second ten. Jaffe told me that Cherwa wasn't allowed to vote on, or even discuss, any Chicago entries and that the Sun-Times would have benefited if he had been. Furthermore, Jaffe said, the only reason the Sun-Times even made it to the discussion stage was that he himself put it back on the table. "If I had any grudge against the Sun-Times--which I don't--why would I do that?"

Jaffe said he scored the Sun-Times in his top 20. "The other judges didn't like it as well," he told me. Why? "There's just not as much special as there used to be," he said. "From centerpiece-type [feature] stories they've gone to a lot more of just doing the game stuff. One of the tabloids that made the top ten was the Philadelphia Daily News. It got compared to that a lot, and the Daily News had lots of special things in it."

The Sun-Times and Tribune would rather outdo each other at sports than at famine, pestilence, war, or Monica Lewinsky. The Tribune hit the APSE's top ten in '96 and has stayed there. And in the separate competition for Sunday sections the Tribune received an honorable mention in '96 and reached the top ten in '97 and '98, while the Sunday Sun-Times made the top ten in '96, dropped to honorable mention in '97, and was an honorable mention again this year.

Dan Cunningham, sports editor of the Houston Chronicle and chairman of the Sunday jury, gave me three reasons it graded the Tribune's Sunday sports section higher than the Sun-Times's. "The Sun-Times is a little more provincial in what they're doing. I think the writing across the board is probably not as good at the Sun-Times, although some people are certainly as good. Beyond that, some papers in the top ten are doing things that make their sections stand out, special things that are only in their paper--and you don't quite see it in the Sun-Times--big enterprise packages."

Jaffe's seen it too. "They've changed the philosophy of how they do the sports section there. They've gone to a lot more of just doing the game stuff. I love Bill, but that's what they want him to do. I've got to think he doesn't like it."

But Bill Adee, Jaffe's deputy at the Sun-Times and then his successor, doesn't protest. "I think we're the same section we were last year when we were in the top ten," he told me. "I think we're better. I really thought going in we were a lot better. I think the committee that judged the sections this round put a little more emphasis on graphics. I had a couple comments on the back-page ad, which can be held against you, and about photo reproduction. Those aren't things I can control at this point, but we're building new presses."

The strip ad at the bottom of the back page--which is the sports section's front page--is an eyesore, and it hurt the Sun-Times in Tampa, though Jaffe doesn't think it was decisive. He told me that the New York Post--not the kind of company you want to keep--is the only other tabloid in the country to put advertising on that page. "That was one of the reasons I didn't want to stay there anymore," said Jaffe, who quit in 1995 after the Hollinger chain bought the Sun-Times. "I knew that was coming. They talked about it before I left."

"If I was looking at that," said the Tribune's John Cherwa of the Sun-Times's strip ad, "I would view that as showing less of a commitment to sports than a paper that didn't have it." On the other hand, he went on, "on Sunday they put three pages of classifieds right in the middle of the Tribune sports section. I'd hate to be knocked down because of that."

Adee said, "The two biggest changes we made after Rick left were, one, putting the ad on the back and, two, putting stories back on the back. When Rick was here we'd put more centerpieces there--there'd be a picture, a cutout headline in it, something more dramatic. And I will say Rick fought against the back-page ad pretty hard when he was here. But when we had the new regime we felt like we wanted to get stories on the back. That was an important part of being a tab--giving people something to read without even opening the paper."

The centerpiece features that the back pages used to hawk gave way to straight sports news. "And quite frankly," Adee said, "when the Bulls are what they are, that's working to your advantage. Not many other cities have a proven seller like the Bulls.

"I had no problem with that," he went on. "I liked the idea. The writers liked the idea of being on the back page, of having their byline on the back page, their words on the back page. Rick's way worked great, but this works great too."

Except it didn't work at all when the APSE met in Tampa.

"Yeah, for instance, the ad on back," Adee said. "I think you can argue that if the sports editors put us in the top ten with an ad on the back, and some publishers see that, they'll say, 'Hey, why don't you have an ad on back?' It kind of sends the wrong message if you're a sports editor. Now, our publisher loves the ad on back and for good reason. It's quite a good revenue producer. I'm philosophical. I take it as a challenge to work around it. I really liked our Harry Caray back page with the Higgins cartoon. Somebody said it would have looked a lot better without the ad. And I said, well, it's not fair to the advertiser to throw him off the back every time something big happens."

The Sun-Times is never unfair to advertisers. You're not going to meet the payroll winning contests.

Police Stories

When Terry Hillard was named police superintendent last month the Sun-Times published a flattering profile that began with a riveting anecdote. It seemed that as a rookie cop he'd lived in a neighborhood "plagued by prostitutes." The day his wife was hassled at the supermarket, he put on his blues, stormed out, and arrested a hooker and pimp "who had been making the rounds in a rental truck." Hillard didn't stop there. He later pulled up to the station house, unlocked the truck, and "three dozen prostitutes, pimps and customers filed out." It was Hillard's day off, but he told the other officers not to worry--he'd handle all the paperwork.

The story is completely untrue. Fran Spielman, who wrote the profile with Michelle Roberts, heard it from aides to the mayor, but it apparently originated with Hillard's old cronies in the Police Department. A few days after the Sun-Times profile ran I received an unsigned note in the mail. "Great story...the only problem is that Supt. Hillard has told his top staff that the event flat-out never happened....Is this a case of one of the Superintendent's friends exaggerating/building up their friend and boss? Or are the City Hall spinmeisters at work creating fairy tales to enhance the image of their new 'top cop'?"

Officer Patrick Camden in news affairs called Hillard's office and confirmed for me that the story was sheer invention. Apparently Hillard likes Spielman and didn't want to embarrass her, so he hadn't said anything to the paper. But now he felt he had to notify the Sun-Times, which this Tuesday ran a four-line correction buried at the bottom of Metro Briefs on page 12.

"I thought when I read the story it was a little out of character," Camden told me.

Meaning?

"It doesn't sound like any policeman," Camden explained. "Something of that magnitude doesn't happen to a rookie cop. Off duty. Getting a rental truck. Not even in the movies."

A Friendly Little Mugging

The Reader just lost one of our favorite tchotchkes to the Sun-Times. Here's how that happened. Editor Nigel Wade informed columnist Neil Steinberg that there's a long tradition in British journalism of wry sketches on the doings of parliament. The same tack could be taken with Chicago's City Council, and Steinberg was the man to take it.

Steinberg replied that there was something Wade ought to know. Cate Plys already was writing such a feature in the Reader. Then let's see it, said Wade.

After perusing Plys's City Council Follies output, Wade asked her to freelance the same sort of pieces for the Sun-Times. If she said no, someone else (presumably Steinberg) would get the assignment. Plys brooded. As a Reader staff writer she had no business taking the feature to another paper. However, even the City Council manufactures only a finite amount of nonsense, and once Steinberg had picked over its Wednesday meetings, what would be left for her to say a week later? She feared City Council Follies was doomed, whatever she decided.

"And of course my bosses at the Reader are so indescribably wonderful they were willing to let me do it. Please do include that last part," says Plys. So she told Wade yes and, under the unfortunate shingle "Live Ordinance," debuted last Friday in the Sun-Times.

Fair is fair. Steinberg, with Wade's permission, has written for years for the Reader. These arrangements suggest a troubling coziness between the two papers, but none exists. Our first reaction, upon hearing that Wade had never heard of City Council Follies, was to question his competence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Skip Bayless photo.

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